Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Ghost cities

I just finished reading The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian M. Fagan, and what struck me over and over again was an astonished thought of how we managed to survive at all.

For most of human history (and prehistory), the human species lived in communities of various sizes that were constantly teetering on the brink of mass starvation.  Fagan makes the point again and again; for the majority of humanity, all it took was one bad season to spell complete disaster.  There was no Plan B.  Except for the small number of civilizations that lived in areas with sufficient wild foods to forage, a drought or a flood or a freeze at the wrong time and you were in deep, deep trouble.

Size and power were no guarantors of safety.  The Mycenaeans, the Indus Valley Civilization, the Mayan Empire, the Pueblo Culture, the Tiwanaku People, and the Sumerians all declined and collapsed at least in part due to the vagaries of the climate.  More recently, the Little Ice Age contributed to the Great Famine of 1315-1317 which affected most of Europe and killed millions; and repeated crop failures during the eighteenth century, coupled with the monarchy's seeming inability to deal with them, almost certainly were part of what gave momentum to the French Revolution.

Despite all this, our intrepid ancestors not only survived, but in many places, thrived.  Sometimes even in regions where it's hard to imagine.  For example, consider two archaeological discoveries of hitherto-unknown cities -- one in the desert of northwestern Arabia, and the other in the Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador.

A study led by Guillaume Charloux of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique found the remains of a fortified complex surrounding the Khaybar Oasis dating to the fourth and third millennium B.C.E., giving evidence of a permanent settlement that persisted for at least several centuries.

The authors write:

The multidisciplinary investigation carried out between 2020 and 2023 by the Khaybar Longue DurĂ©e Archaeological Project (CNRS-RCU-AFALULA) demonstrates that the Khaybar Oasis was entirely enclosed by a rampart in pre-Islamic times, like several other large regional walled oases in north-western Arabia (Tayma, Qurayyah, Hait, etc.).  The cross-referencing of survey and remote sensing data, architectural examinations and the dating of stratified contexts have revealed a rampart initially some 14.5 km long, generally between 1.70 m and 2.40 m thick, reinforced by 180 bastions.  Preserved today over just under half of the original route (41 %, 5.9 km and 74 bastions), this rampart dates back to the Bronze Age, between 2250 and 1950 BCE, and had never been detected before due to the profound reworking of the local desert landscape over time.  This crucial discovery confirms the rise of a walled oasis complex in northern Arabia during the Bronze Age, a trend that proved to be central to the creation of indigenous social and political complexity.

A different study that also came out this week looked at the ruins of a city complex with buildings, gardens, streets, and plazas, now buried in the tangle of the Ecuadorian rain forest near the Upano River.  This one is even more mysterious than the Arabian settlement; we knew there were people living in northwestern Arabia back then, even if we didn't know they had built a city.  Here, archaeologists have found the remains of a complex, settled civilization, its beginnings contemporaneous with the Roman Republic and which lasted for a thousand years, and we have no idea who the people were that inhabited it -- neither what language they spoke nor how they were related to other Indigenous groups in the area before and afterward.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons James Martins, Amazon rainforest - panoramio, CC BY 3.0]

Sacha Vignieri, writing for Science, commented about the research:

When intact, the Amazonian forest is dense and difficult to penetrate, both on foot and with scanning technologies.  Over the past several years, however, improved light detection and ranging scans have begun to penetrate the forest canopy, revealing previously unknown evidence of past Amazonian cultures.  Rostain et al. describe evidence of such an agrarian Amazonian culture that began more than 2000 years ago.  They describe more than 6000 earthen platforms distributed in a geometic pattern connected by roads and intertwined with agricultural landscapes and river drainages in the Upano Valley.  Previous efforts have described mounds and large monuments in Amazonia, but the complexity and extent of this development far surpasses these previous sites.

Of course, the fact that both the Arabian and the Amazonian cities were ultimately abandoned indicates that they too fell prey to the capriciousness that characterizes much of human history.  Whether the cause was war, famine, drought, disease, or some combination -- all too often those come together -- the Khaybar Oasis and Upano Valley civilizations left their intricately-constructed towns, either dispersing into other communities or else dwindling and finally dying.

Whichever it was, all we have are the ghostly remains of cities once inhabited by thriving populations -- a stark reminder of our own tenuous grasp on survival, something we often forget about because of the hubris of modern society.  I'm reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley's haunting and poignant poem "Ozymandias," which seems a fitting place to end:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


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